Graduating from high school is a milestone in students’ lives. But those diplomas can mean very different things from state to state and district to district. They can indicate that students mastered challenging college-preparation courses, or cruised through a series of watered-down classes.
A new report tries to quantify that variation. The latest edition of “How the States Got Their Rates,” by the group Achieve, surveyed all the states and found that 95 kinds of diplomas were conferred on graduating students in 2015. The analysis focuses on how many types of diplomas were available and the coursework and tests that students had to complete to earn each type. (The study examines only math and English/language arts coursework.)
Achieve did the same analysis for 2014 and found 93 kinds of diplomas were handed out to students. It’s part of the organization’s ongoing push to draw attention to the real variation in students’ accomplishments, even as many celebrate President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. high school graduation rate had reached an all-time high of 83.2 percent.
For many, 12th grade students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress implicitly poses a question about the meaning of high school diplomas: How can the graduation rate be rising when high school seniors aren’t doing any better on “the nation’s report card” than they were years ago?
Other studies have found wide variations in the rigor of high school curricula. One, by the Education Trust in April, found that only 8 percent of high school students complete a course of study that prepares them well for both college and careers.
Variation Among States
States confer a wide range of high school diplomas, and some require far more accomplishment than others. Achieve found that while states report their graduation rates, they rarely disclose how many students earn each kind of diploma. That makes it hard to analyze how many are getting a rigorous high school education that sets them up them well for college or work, and how many aren’t.
Seven states and the District of Columbia expect all students to complete a “college- and-career-ready” course of study to earn a high school diploma. The rest either allow students to opt for another type of diploma or set the bar lower, according to Achieve.
“The fact that [a diploma] can mean so many different things is a bit alarming,” Sandy Boyd, Achieve’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. “In too many places, graduates still have that unwelcome surprise of not being prepared for what they want to do.”
Eight states have set the bar high, expecting all students to complete a “college- and career-ready” set of courses—at least three years of math, through Algebra 2, and four years of college-prep English—in order to graduate. Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee fell into that category in 2014 and 2015. Minnesota, Nebraska, and West Virginia joined that list in 2015.
For those states, the graduation rates they report publicly match the rates of students earning college- and career-ready diplomas. West Virginia, for instance, reported that 86.5 percent of students graduated, and since there is only one set of diploma requirements for all students, and it meets Achieve’s college-ready criteria, 86.5 percent of West Virginia students are considered college-ready.
In other states, it’s not so clear.
Sixteen states don’t offer any type of diploma that requires students to complete at least three years of math and four of rigorous English. In 27 states, there are multiple diploma options, and at least one of those options in each state allows students to graduate without completing that college-ready course of study.
At a time when policymakers are looking with renewed interest at career and technical education programs as a promising pathway for students who might not want to attend four-year colleges, it’s particularly important for states to adhere to diploma requirements that include a college-ready course of study, Boyd said. Most postsecondary options will require that of students, she said.
“There is a fundamental level of preparation that kids need, at least in English and math,” Boyd said. “It’s dangerous to think of [a college-ready course of study and career and technical education] as an either-or, because then there is a risk of falling back into old-fashioned tracking. It’s possible to be both academically prepared for postsecondary [options] and have that great CTE concentration.”
Achieve wants to see states do a better job of explaining their diploma options to parents and students and to publish “accessible and clear” information about the proportions of students who earn the various kinds of diplomas. Disaggregating those numbers by student subgroup, and pairing them with information about which students are opting out of college- and career-ready diplomas in states that allow them to do so, would shed valuable light on what diplomas mean in each state, Achieve argues.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as States Found to Offer 95 Kinds of Diplomas